That’s because the sense of smell is processed through olfactory receptors that are directly connected to the limbic system, the brain’s ancient emotion center. Before signals are relayed from the limbic system to the cognitive region called the cortex, which is responsible for recognizing the odor, your nose and primitive brain have already generated emotional responses and revived learned memories linked to the scent.
This powerful nose/brain connection is undoubtedly the reason why aromatherapy—the use of essential oils from plants to improve a person’s physical, mental, or emotional state—has been shown to reduce symptoms associated with stress and anxiety, along with health problems related to those symptoms. Research suggests that a whiff of lavender, for example, can lower stress levels through its direct effects on the limbic system.
You don’t have to go to a professional aromatherapist to enjoy the benefits that scents can provide, according to MGH psychiatrist Uma Naidoo, MD, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a trained chef.
“It’s perfectly possible to select scents in response to your current needs, such as using a peppermint candy to help you concentrate on a lecture,” she says. “Look for essential oils of your favorite scents, preferably organic, in your local health food store, or use spices and flowers to add delightful aromas to your home.”
Scents can impact people in a number of ways, Dr. Naidoo says:
“Some may be unpleasant or associated with unhappy memories, and those scents are usually avoided. But there are many aromas that have a positive impact on most people. They may have a calming influence, or boost energy and increase alertness. Some familiar aromas can stimulate reassuring memories and associations. Research has even linked the ability of some scents to lower stress levels, with improvements in physical problems, such as high blood pressure.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The sense of smell can diminish with age, but you can use essential oils or flowers and spices to stimulate olfactory receptors. Dr. Naidoo offers the following suggestions for ways you can experience the benefits of aromatherapy on your own:
- Add a drop of essential oil to your bathwater.
- Dab a drop of essential oil on your pillow, your wrist, or a heated light bulb.
- Use essential oils mixed with water in a diffuser to scent an entire room.
- Scent your clothing with a potpourri of spices.
- Fill a vase with scented flowers to perfume your living space.
- Simmer a pot of spices in water to provide a pleasant aromatherapy experience.
Researchers asked a group of adults to massage their own feet for 45 minutes a day, three times a week for one month with a mixture of lavendar and other essential oils. Compared to a second group that used a scent-free oil for similar massage sessions, the participants who used scented oil experienced significant decreases in blood pressure readings and levels of anxiety, and higher scores on mental health-related quality of life measures, according to a report published March 24, 2016 in PLoS One. The study suggests that self-massage might be an especially effective way to enjoy aromatherapy.
Although research is not abundant, scientists have conducted studies on some common scents that might be used for at-home aromatherapy. Feel free to experiment with other favorite aromas, as reactions to scents tend to be personal. Most studies used the actual spices, fruits, flowers, or essential oils extracted from them. Here’s what researchers have learned:
Lavender: The scent of this flower has been shown to encourage relaxation and to promote sleep. In one study, scientists observed that lavender increases alpha brain waves associated with relaxation and creativity.
Jasmine: This aroma has the ability to reduce depression and anxiety and promote sleep, according to research. Jasmine’s effects compare favorably with those of some commercial sedatives, and have also been linked to increases in alpha brain waves.
Rosemary: The scent of rosemary has been linked with improved cognitive speed and accuracy, improved memory of past events, and improved prospective memory—the ability to remember to do something in the future. The scent is also linked with decreased alpha brain waves and a corresponding increase in energy.
Citrus: The scent of limes, oranges, and lemons appears to stimulate mental awareness and feelings of energy.
Peppermint: This scent has been found to increase concentration and motivation and sharpen mental processes. Research suggests that inhaling peppermint aroma can also improve athletic performance and help reduce appetite, a boon for dieters.
Vanilla: The scent of this spice has been found to increase feelings of joy and relaxation, and promote sleep.
Cinnamon: Research has linked the aroma of this familiar kitchen spice with improved focus, visual-motor response, and working memory.
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